It was blazing hot last week here in Massachusetts—‘90s and high humidity—too hot, even for me, once again this summer. On the plus side, however, we were also on vacation, hanging out at home and doing day trips. Perfect weather for the beach.
Only one problem: I can’t swim in the ocean with ulcers on my fingers. Too much risk of infection. So we just spent one day, last Monday, a real scorcher, at the seashore. The water was wonderfully warm, and I was able to wade up to my thighs, the next best thing to swimming.
For the rest of the week, we escaped the heat and humidity by playing tourist in our own backyard and immersing ourselves in history—from dinosaur bones to the Dead Sea Scrolls, from Emily Dickinson’s reclusive world to whaling ship lore.
One evening, we watched a classic 1921 Swedish silent film, The Phantom Carriage, with live piano accompaniment. Two other nights, we enjoyed free outdoor concerts. We met Al’s infant grand-niece and took her and her parents on a Swan Boat ride in the Boston Public Garden. Later that evening, we paid respects to the site of the Boston Marathon bombing.
On our last day, Sunday, the humidity finally broke, and we headed out to Plimoth Plantation, a recreation of 17th Century life among the native Wampanoags and English settlers who arrived on the Mayflower.
Here we met Phillip, a Wampanoag descendant and interpreter, who wore his hair half-shaved, half braided, as his ancestors did, to avoid entanglement with a drawn bow. He explained all the ways the Wampanoags made use of nature’s bounty to thrive along the Massachusetts coast—building bark longhouses that provided ample heat and comfort throughout the winter, constructing summer huts from reeds that swelled with moisture to become rainproof, planting beans next to corn so the tendrils would curl up the stalks, shading the roots with squash leaves and blossoms that minimized weed growth. There were game and fish aplenty in the forests, rivers and sea. “We had everything we needed,” he said.
In the nearby English community, we chatted with interpreters who reenacted the lives of actual settlers. One young woman rocked in her dark thatched roof house, clothed in a long linen skirt and yellow vest, stitching a napkin’s hem, and told us how hard life was, how much she missed her old home in back in Surrey. The only good thing about coming here, she said, was the promise of owning land, something her husband, a cooper, could never have dreamed of back in England. When asked why they did not call themselves Pilgrims, she explained, “Pilgrims are people who travel a long way to a holy land. This is far from a holy place. It’s but a wilderness.”
Same land. Two diametrically opposed world views. I couldn’t have asked for a better example of how mind-set shapes experience.
So here I sit, typing on my laptop, inching back into my normal routine, pondering. Vacation, we discovered this year, is a state of mind. You don’t have to travel far to find it. And (I am certainly not the first to observe), how we frame our experiences defines every encounter. It’s all too easy to lapse into longing for what you lack in the midst of all the plenty you have yet to recognize. The best respite from struggle is gratitude.
The trick is to maintain that vacation awareness—that ability to step back from daily demands and clutter, to pause and truly see—in order to appreciate and make the most of what’s right here, right now.
I’ll keep trying.
Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.